With just two months to go until the Cheltenham Festival 2022, thoughts begin to turn to those high class clashes, none more so perhaps than the Blue Riband itself, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. A number of contenders that ran over the Christmas and New Year period are slated to head straight to Cheltenham so now seems an opportune time to have a rifle through recent - and slightly less recent - history in search of an ante post play.
In this post, I'll cover some Gold Cup trends, potentially favoured run styles, and of course the actual form of those with chances and a few without much hope!
Let's start with some historical context.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Trends
Trends seem to have acquired something of a bad rap in recent years, perhaps because factoids are taken out of context a little too often. But the reality is that history is our best guide to the future and, especially in top class races, a certain profile tends to come to the fore time and again. The Gold Cup is a race that places a premium on stamina, class, jumping and a touch of speed. Given the undulating nature of Cleeve Hill, against which the racecourse is set, contenders need also to possess balance: not for nothing is this considered such a champion's test. What follows will flesh out the importance of some of those attributes in numbers.
The best staying chasers in training tend to line up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and only those towards the peak of the ratings pyramid normally prevail.
With the exception of 152-rated Lord Windermere, who just got the best of a bizarre five-way scrap up the hill in 2014, every other Gold Cup winner since 2007 has been rated at least 164. The average winning rating in that time, bar Lord Windermere, was a touch over 171.
The trouble with highly rated winners of the Gold Cup is that their rating is testament to their ability and that, naturally, is not missed by the market. So it is that, again excepting the impostor Lord W, every other Gold Cup scorer this century has returned 12/1 or shorter. The average winning return has been just under 5/1.
Championship racing is a young man's game, the Gold Cup being a case in point. Aged ten, Cool Dawn was a shock 25/1 scorer in 1998. Since then, I make it 75 double-digit aged horses have faced the starter, none passing the post in front; eight did place, however. It seems to be a less frequent occurrence that older horses take their Gold Cup place these days and, when it does happen, it is often a star of previous years enjoying a(n unplaced) swansong.
Denman and Kauto Star fair monopolised the podium before and shortly after 2010, but as ten- and eleven-year-olds they could do no better than Fell-2nd-3rd-2nd between them in 2010/11. The other 13 times a double-digit aged horse has been sent off a single figure price since [at least] 1997, they managed a solitary fourth place between them (See More Business at 9/4 in 2000).
Meanwhile, more materially, the sweet spot is, well, any horse younger than ten. From micro representation this century, a six-year-old has won (Long Run, 2011), while the majority of winners are aged seven to nine, as are the majority of runners.
It is hardly a surprise that no age group was profitable to back blind but we can see from the colour coding the folly (or boldness, if you prefer) of siding with a veteran.
UK vs Ireland
Last year's overall pasting for the home team was reflected in the Gold Cup itself as Irish runners filled out the medal positions, Britain's top performer being the valiant eleven-year-old Native River in fourth. It is worth further noting that there were only four Irish runners in the field of twelve.
In 2020, Ireland's trainers saddled seven of the dozen runners, again taking top honours but this time ceding the consolation spots to the domestic quintet. Irish runners finished 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th and fell.
A year earlier, the first of Al Boum Photo's brace of GC's, an Irish-trained horse also ran second, with the remaining five raiders faring no better than 8th (three non-completions). Native River beat Might Bite for a British 1-2 in 2018, but prior to that it was Irish eyes smiling in both 2017 and 2016, where Team Green bagged the first four places home.
All that means is Ireland have won five of the last six renewals of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and current market sentiment points to a sixth pot in seven years.
In 2014, the novice Coneygree recorded a memorable Gold Cup success for the small clan at Mark Bradstock's Old Manor Stables; a year later, Jim Culloty unleashed Lord Windermere from his handful of horses to bag glory. These days, most of the equine power is housed in just a few whale stables and romance, even relative romance, is in short supply. But then, perhaps it has been thin on the ground for a while longer: Nicky Henderson won a couple before Lord Jim, and prior to that was a spell of Paul Nicholls dominance.
We are unlikely to see an unfamiliar name engraved into the annals of Festival history this term.
A test as unique as the Cheltenham Gold Cup makes it something of a specialist's race. Best Mate famously reeled off a hat-trick of wins early in the century and, since then, both Kauto Star and Al Boum Photo have doubled up. More than that, the same horses seem to have hit the frame with regularity.
The 56 1-2-3-4 positions since 2008 were filled by just 38 individual horses. Names like Native River and Kauto Star and Denman and Long Run and Al Boum Photo return instantly to mind; but a little more noggin-rummaging is required to recall the triple-placed sticks Djakadam and The Giant Bolster. Hardy perennials all, and expect further familiarity nine weeks hence.
Identikit Gold Cup Winner
So where does that leave us? Not much further forward in truth: the challenge with markets like the Gold Cup is that there are few lights dimmed under bushels. We know we're most likely seeking a younger horse, prepared by a mega-trainer, probably in Ireland; and we know that horse will have a top rating and may have run well in last year's Gold Cup.
It's desperately obvious and yet, at the same time, there are a few pretenders who don't really fit that bill.
Of the 30 entered, a dozen don't have a 160+ rating, another four are aged ten (including Al Boum Photo and Champ), and Allaho is almost certain to run in the Ryanair barring the same owner's A Plus Tard's absence from the final declarations for this one. From those remaining it shouldn't be too hard to whittle a good few more:
Gold Cup Run Styles
The way races are run suit some horses and, at the same time, compromise others; it is always worth trying to figure out which side of that argument your wagered conveyance is likely to be. Attempting to project from this far out is not straightforward but we still ought to give it a lash. First things first: how have recent Gold Cups played out pace wise?
Last year, Minella Indo tracked a steady enough pace. He was never more than two or three lengths off the lead. In 2020, Al Boum Photo raced midfield but never more than about five lengths from a lead shared without contest; and the previous year, the same horse was ridden more patiently after a number of rivals battled for early primacy.
The story of these three winners? Right place, right time each time.
In 2018, Native River won from Might Bite, the pair engaging in a ding-dong skirmish from flag fall; in theory, both should have wilted and been passed. This was definitely not a winner I could have found as it looked on paper beforehand that they'd have at it exactly as they did, an approach in this sort of cauldron which typically spells c-u-r-t-a-i-n-s. Fair play to both.
Sizing John in 2017 was trying a longer trip and was ridden accordingly, with patience. That panned out ideally with, again, Native River disputing the lead at a fast tempo; back they came at the bizzo end on quick turf.
O'Faolains Boy set a fair but not searing tempo, aided and abetted by Smad Place, in 2016, the beneficiary of which was the handily-ridden Don Cossack. Remember him? And in 2015, Coneygree made every yard under an inspired ride from Nico de Boinville. de Boinville's measurement of pace there was brilliant, saving enough to repel a brace of Irish challengers up the hill to the line.
The message, in case it isn't clear enough yet, is that situation dictates optimal position: if it's steadily run, be close to the front; when there's a more contested gallop, a more patient ride is best. Regardless of how things pan out from an early speed perspective, out back is likely not a favoured position. The only time since 2009 when 'in rear' prevailed? That weird, wonky, bizarro Lord Windermere episode in 2014.
2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map
So let's attempt to nail some jelly to the wall. Specifically, we'll try to conjecture a) which horses will run in the 2022 Gold Cup, and b) how they might be expected to assemble themselves through the first mile - and at what sort of an overall speed. Quackery? Here? How very dare you...
What we do have here on geegeez are future big race fields and, as a result, we can put our tools to work, including the PACE tab. Removing horses I perceive as unlikely to line up, the field looks this, based on an average of their most recent three run style scores:
Remastered and Conflated are the two who typically press on. They are also two of the lesser-rated animals in the entries: as such, the chances of them not lining up or simply not being quick enough against this calibre of opposition are high. Run Wild Fred, a novice likely heading elsewhere, is another who could have been trying to nose an advantage over the first few fences. Which is a verbose way of saying this field is not obviously loaded with early dash given the more probable starters.
As such, a prominent run style might be an advantage, which could be a positive for the likes of Minella Indo and Chantry House. Fancied runners such as Protektorat and A Plus Tard would do well not to gift easy lengths to talented rivals by lagging behind in the first half of the race. At least, that's my reading of this vaguest of vaguenesses.
2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup Form Guide
And so, enfin, let us peruse the past performances, in approximate market rank order.
The favourite, at around 7/2, is A Plus Tard, whose Betfair Chase demolition job at Haydock propelled him to the top of the lists. A model of consistency, APT has yet to finish outside of the first three in 13 Rules starts. Three of those races have been at the Festival where he has the full set of medals; his only gold, mind, came in a handicap, and he's since finished third in the 2020 Ryanair and runner up in last season's Gold Cup. Defeat was unexpected in the G1 Savills Chase over Christmas, but it might be that he had a harder race than it appeared in the Haydock mud; and it might simply be that that self-same Warrington sticky stuff has flattered to deceive once more, as it has done in the Gold Cup context with Bristol De Mai and Royale Pagaille in recent renewals.
For all that iffing and butting, A Plus Tard is the right favourite and almost certain to offer a run for the pennies. But he's no bargain, especially if his jockey - presumably Rachael Blackmore though she has another option - allows others a head start.
The one to deny APT a year ago was stable mate Minella Indo, himself falling cruelly short on the same sward twelve months earlier. Run down by Champ in the Festival Novices' Chase as a seven-year-old, he resisted Blackmore's persistent attempts to repeat the feat up that withering hill aged eight. We already know repeat winners are relatively commonplace, and that Indo usually figures prominently from tapes up, is theoretically in his pomp as a nine-year-old and, if we add in that he also won his sole other Fez spin, the G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle of 2019, what's not to like?
Well, P is for 'potato race' and also for 'pulled up', which was the fate that befell the reigning champ on his most recent outing. That scrabble tile on the scorecard came by way of Bryony's goading aboard Frodon in Kempton's King George: the preeminent female riders of their generation - heck, any generation pretty much - set a gallop way too hot to handle and paid the price. The race looks a 'chuck out' but it does follow a middling seasonal debut behind that pesky Frodon at Down Royal, too.
Looking again to the upside, Minella Indo has one target this season as he has had for the last few seasons: Cheltenham's Festival. He arrived in Gloucestershire last term with recent form of F4 and, unless taking in the Dublin Racing Festival between now and his return visit to England, he'll arrive this time with 3P as the last two efforts. He's 8/1.
A niggle with both of these Henry de Bromhead inmates is the form of the yard; while there's plenty of time for that to shake itself right, a 6.5% strike rate in the past month (28% placed) compares unglamorously with historical hit rates a smidge more than double the win and another five or six points on the place.
The third and final single figure price is offered about the chance of Galvin, trained by Gordon Elliott, and vanquisher of A Plus Tard in the Savills last time. An eight-year-old second season chaser, Galvin is another previous Festival winner: his big day came on the Tuesday last year when he saw off all-comers in "the four-miler" National Hunt Chase, which is of course no longer staged over four miles. Stamina is not in doubt then, nor is the quietly ascendant trajectory of his form; but he does tend to struggle more when it's wet.
The evidence is a form string on yielding or quicker of 111121111111 and on soft or heavy of 16F4222 (credit to Tony Keenan for highlighting this). I'm not really into long-range forecasts, nor do I know about water tables, evapotranspiration or turf husbandry; but I do know that, since 1997 - 24 Gold Cup renewals - the official going has been good to soft or quicker on all bar three occasions.
Next in the lists, at 10/1, is Al Boum Photo, winner of the 2019 and 2020 Gold Cups and third last year. That seemed to signal a changing of the guard, an impression that recently turning ten has done nothing to dispel. The substance of his Punchestown second to Clan Des Obeaux and his annual trot around Tramore on New Year's Day has corroborated the perception of this brilliant fellow yielding just a touch to the passage of time.
On the same price, and figuratively passing Al Boum in the lift on the way up, is Protektorat, Dan Skelton's great white (bay, actually) hope. A seven-year-old son of Saint Des Saints, he was a good but not great novice hurdler - won a Listed, beaten three times in Grade 2's - but seems to have taken a solid stride forward over fences. To wit, a novice chase season of 11221, the last win of which was a four length score in the Grade 1 Manifesto at Aintree; and, hitherto this campaign, a staying on close second over a trip seemingly too short under top weight in the Paddy Power, and a facile romp in the Grade 2 Many Clouds Chase at an extended three miles. The form of that latter race is seriously open to question: Native River ran his last race and was spent much further out than usual, and everything else bar Sam Brown failed to complete.
Protektorat has been Pricewise'd in the last couple of days, that value vacuum cleaner meaning he's a rum price for us Johnny Come Lately's, but he's not really one I'm yet persuaded by anyway. I do admire his upwardly mobile profile, though.
After that we move towards the longer grass, where contenders morph into pretenders in the main. Take 14/1 Tornado Flyer for example: a shock winner of a bonkers King George that culminated in a pace collapse. His only other effort at three miles was when 37 lengths (count them) behind A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase of 2020. His best run in the interim was when staying on into third in another mental burn up for last season's Ryanair; if they go a million, and if he stays, and if he can cut out the mistakes which are a feature of his performances, he might make the frame. As referenced earlier, at this early juncture the race looks unlikely to set up for him even assuming those other boxes got ticked.
What of 18/1 Chantry House then? Another rocking up after a last day 'P', assuming he doesn't stop off 'twixt now and then, this eight-year-old Seven Barrows green-and-golder was a fine winner at the Fez twelve months back, and an even finer winner in Liverpool three weeks later. That brace of novice G1's, the second of which was at beyond three miles, advertised his prospective Gold Cup claims, something a facile match score over The Big Breakaway did little to rebuke. And then, when it was all going so well, along came that King George; never going the pace there and succumbing to a couple of - these days - uncharacteristic blunders and pulling up.
If one can overlook that disappointment, Chantry House's Chelto form is strong: as well as the Marsh score last campaign he was also a fair third to Shishkin in that one's Supreme. But, with reference to the PU, and this applies equally to Minella Indo unless/until they bid to usurp it as their pre-Gold Cup form figure, the last horse to pull up prior to the Gold Cup and still get it done was... Cool Dawn in 1998. The 15 who attempted to overcome that stat since were all massive prices with the exception of 10/1 Lostintranslation two years ago: he managed third in spite of his trainer's lamentable form at the time, so all may not be lost. Lies, damned lies and statistics...
Asterion Forlonge - not on his feet for longe [harsh] - is a really talented horse who is probably just a bit soft. There's a fair argument that three of his four falls/unseats were because he is a wuss, scaring himself on the landing side when not foot perfect. I doubt he'll iron that out before March but, if he could take off and land adroitly throughout, he'd be interesting for all that it's (very) hard to forget his errant transit in the 2020 Supreme. He's 18/1 tops.
20/1 bar these, the first of which is Champ, now ten and last seen winning well in a Grade 1 hurdle. His last chase sighting was when pulling up after only six fences in the Gold Cup a year ago. Connections are publicly pointing towards this gig but I wonder if he might go t'other way in a very open looking and winnable Stayers' Hurdle section. Oh, and he's only had four runs in two years.
Of the rest, Allaho almost certainly goes Ryanair, Royale Pagaille has plenty to prove away from Haydock, Fiddlerontheroof has most of a stone to find on ratings though does have some good placed form at staying trips, Mount Ida surely goes to the Mares' Chase, and Lostintranslation pulled up in last year's GC and is now ten. The rest are almost impossible to fancy.
2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup Tips
Plenty to chew on in the above ahead of what looks an open and fascinating betting puzzle. No horse comes without some downsides and, as ever, the challenge is to weigh the negative against the prevailing odds. In my view, and that of most of the rest of the world, easily the three most likely winners are the trio at the head of the market; but their credentials are largely reflected in their prices.
A Plus Tard has been exposed a couple of times in Festival G1 company now and is short enough for all that he's hugely talented. Galvin may still be improving but 5/1 readily acknowledges that. He'll likely be a similar price on the day if it's good to soft ground, and then might be worth a saver; he'd probably be opposable on softer.
The one who might still be a little on the fat side is Minella Indo. Yes, we have to overlook a no better than fair first day of term and a very flat effort at Kempton; but there are credible excuses, and Indo's previous - as he arrived at last year's Gold Cup - offers hope he'll be a different horse in two months' time. 8/1 is all right, I think.
Of the remainder, I'm slightly tempted to have a little throwaway each way bet on Chantry House. Again, it was a bad one in the King George last time but, prior to that, he was 1113131111 including a win at last year's Festival. He has a rating that fits (just about), upside at the trip, handles the track, goes on most ground and usually races prominently. And he's 18/1. Or 16/1 NRNB and best odds guaranteed (if you still have it) with bet365. That latter option is playable small each way, I think.
2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup Suggestion
1 pt win Minella Indo 8/1 Paddy, Hills, Victor
½ pt e/w Chantry House 16/1 bet365 (NRNB, BOG) or 18/1 Skybet, Unibet